Othering in the Gaming Community
“Ninety percent of all video gamers are losers. Either social losers, career losers or simply life losers,” writes Reddit user McBurgerHam.1 In a world where the dominant ideological framework relies on unequal access to power and material resources—in other words, a world rife with othering—gamers find themselves ousted through nerdism—the process by which individuals are subordinated by the elite for their marginalized interests. Gamers have removed themselves from the dominant culture, in which it is difficult to live up to and even survive the cumbersome gender expectations and norms deriving from our patriarchal society, effectively creating their own subculture. Interestingly, though, despite experiencing nerdist oppression, a replication of the very system that othered these gamers is found within the communities they have created. Gaming communities replicate mainstream patriarchal society by constructing social hierarchies, valuing traditional displays of white masculinity, and subordinating those found in opposition to the patriarchal framework. But the dynamic does not end here; it is complicated further by a mutation. Appropriating the nerdism that marginalized gamers from the dominant culture, a hierarchy based on gaming titles manifests. Here, mainstream games find accesses to power, making these players part of a gaming hegemonic elite. Games outside of this realm endure a process of infantilization; those who play them experience that mutated and appropriated form of nerdist othering—tarnishing the gamer’s reputation and limiting their social mobility. While all infantilized gamers are marginalized, a final mutation involving another set of minorities occurs: Deriving from the patriarchal nature of the dominant culture, power is ultimately reserved for white, cisgendered, heterosexual men. Individuals who cannot participate in such a specific culture are treated as others, making their presence in the community one full of stigma. Rather than discrimination based on gaming titles, this particular mutation is entirely social. Queer, female, and POC gamers live in complete opposition to the mainstream of the gaming subculture. Through socialization and institutionalization, these social hierarchies are bolstered and reaffirmed, making the gaming subculture an entity propagated by othering ideologies. Ultimately, gamers who are ousted, not only by the dominant culture, but, additionally, by their own community, are forced to bear idiosyncratic discrimination, eliminating the chances of participating in ideal gaming experiences.
Many articles have been written on the harassment female gamers face within the gaming community. My paper fills a gap in the subcultural analysis of video games and their players by framing itself around the dynamics of power found in the patriarchal structure of mainstream society and how that replicates itself in the subculture of gaming. Expanding the discourse to include queer gamers, gamers of color, and infantilized gamers, the framing leads to an understanding of why the process of othering occurs within an already othered subculture.
It is important to understand that our society is one founded on the oppression of certain social groups and the protection of others. Only those who can perpetuate the ideals and standards of the high culture are allowed to identify with it; individuals who cannot perpetuate the existing power dynamics are constrained to the lower culture. Such dualism can be identified in many areas of society, but the origins of this dualistic nature can be attributed to the workings of the patriarchy. In this system, individual experience of the individual is founded within the gender binary.2,3
The gender binary is one that builds a foundation for the patriarchy. In this, the expectation that male-bodied individuals are to behave in a masculine manner and that female-bodied individuals are to behave in a feminine manner is enforced.4 Obstructions to this binary put people in a distant sector of society, limiting their access to power. Because the patriarchal structure idealizes masculinity, femininity is entirely subordinated, thus forcing women into a position below men.5 If men are to be the beneficiaries of the hegemonic culture, then women participate in a culture labeled as emphasized femininity.6 This is the framework of misogyny found in the patriarchy. Other victims of the system are all those with queer identities. Queer individuals go against the gender binary entirely, since homosexuality, for example, is seen as emasculating and transgenderism is perceived to be abnormal. Lastly, people of color are always found to be placed in a marginalized group within the patriarchy, no matter how masculine an individual is. Ultimately, each of these social groups are subordinated through processes involving ideologies existing within the patriarchal structure of the dominant culture.
While the othering qualities of the dominant culture have existed for centuries, the industry of gaming has experienced a new form of subordination, as it is a community that is relatively new. The othering process began with the creation of nerdist sentiments within the elite of the dominant culture. That elite, being the prime alpha male with idealized masculine features, i.e., muscles, sexual prowess, and conventionally attractive facial features, attribute emasculating qualities to gamers. These narratives suggesting inadequacy make gamers out to be “weird” due to falling short of the ideal, whether that be physically, mentally, or emotionally. Gamers’ inability to display toxically masculine traits places gamers in opposition to gender expectations and norms. That the birth of the gaming subculture was brought about by oppression faced in the dominant culture defines the relationship between gamers and the mainstream as one of a juxtaposition. Rather than creating a subversive safe space, the gaming community has replicated the othering ideologies of the dominant culture. With the appropriation of patriarchal structures, social hierarchies appear to be fundamental to the subculture. Idolization of certain qualities has allowed some gamers to access power and subordinated others, thus leading the appropriated replication to take on a faceted quality.
The hierarchical nature of an othering society manifests itself in the gaming community in a unique manner. Hegemony is not only limited to those who can dominate within a patriarchal society, but, furthermore, the section of the gaming community in which a gamer participates can also offer some advantages or disadvantages. When I refer to mainstream games, my sample specifically emphasizes Fortnite, but there are many others like it that together constitute the dominant games and players within gaming subculture. Gamers who primarily play mainstream games can eliminate some stigmatization emplaced upon them through nerdist othering, as they are games that the dominant culture often chooses to participate in, as well. With the phenomenon that Fortnite created, the world saw a ripple in the boundaries between mainstream society and gaming society. Online presences, like that of Ninja, a Fortnite content creator, conceived qualities going against nerdy stereotypes. Suddenly, it was cool to play Fortnite, and those who created content for the game were seen as idols. Players of the game aspired to be as good as those top gamers with online presences. Gaining victories in the Battle Royale mode of the game afforded anyone who played it a form of social capital; players would post on social media platforms informing their followers about their recent victories. With gaming crazes like Fortnite, nobody, gamer or not, wants to miss out on the moment. Therefore, participating in these fads not only grants hegemonic status within the gaming community, but it can even offer access to status outside of the subculture. For gamers to pass the threshold of subculture to the mainstream brings the community out of solitude, but it enhances tension created by hegemony, causing a modulation to occur.
In the patriarchal hierarchy of masculinities, there are men who exemplify all the expected traits, these being the alpha males; then, there are men who exemplify only some or none of the expected traits, these being the beta males. Alpha males are part of a culture that presents itself in many sectors of society—hegemonic masculinity. Hegemonic masculinity frames the expectations society implements. Strength, nerve, courage, work ethic, sexual prowess, domination, pride, rigidity, and independence—these are some qualities embodied by humans of a hypermasculine nature. This idealized form of man is to run the household, making money and providing for the family. Partaking in this grants power and privileges.7 Because of this, the rewards hegemony offers are, often, something to be desired by the masses, even by those who cannot “naturally” achieve the status. The creation of elitist attitudes from such privileges leads to a toxic characterization of these men. Bringing about a sense of worthiness, men feel a need to continuously propagate themselves by ensuring the subordination of certain individuals. This assurance can turn violent, whether that be physically or verbally. From subordination in the dominant culture by those men, to a replication of that hegemonic culture found in mainstream gamers, the mutation, therefore, involves a subordination within the already subordinated gaming subculture.
Opposite to hegemonic gaming, gamers who play video games further away from the mainstream can find themselves being victims of nerdism even within their own community. Games such as The Legend of Zelda and Pokemon retain those nerdist condemnations the most, assuming that gamers who participate in this section of gaming are “losers” and “childish.” Despite there being valid social capital to be found among those who play these games, it is virtually useless since there is no value to the hierarchical elite in both the gaming culture and the dominant culture. This process of subordination, by way of infantilization, completes the necessity constructed through the replication of othering ideologies to have individuals at the bottom. Ultimately, this creates a subculture within the subculture—with the initial subculture being able to perform for the dominant culture, and the secondary subculture being at the mercy of the initial.
While nerdist discrimination occurs within the gaming community, a secondary mutation worsens the socially hierarchical nature of the culture. Rather than limiting criticisms to gamers experiencing hegemony, those gamers who are pushed into subordination by way of infantilization become perpetrators of othering, as well. Since the structure replicates a dominant culture that works through a patriarchy, white, cisgendered, heterosexual gamers reserve certain access to power, thus constructing a new subordination, one that others gamers who cannot identify with all of those traits. Just like gamers who participate in the mainstream, individuals experiencing infantilization receive a chance to shed some of their stigma if they can align with these ideals, putting them alongside gamers already in powerful positions, and pitting them against those who cannot align. Now having to sustain oppression from a wider demographic of the community, women, queer, and POC gamers deal with racism, heterosexism, and misogyny—making their gaming experiences far from ideal. Such intense systems of othering must have a catalyst in order to function. What we see is that the creation and perpetuation of such toxic behaviors are not only inflated within the community but are pre-existing ideologies.
The discursive nature of gaming’s social hierarchies is not arbitrary. While the structures are replicated from the dominant culture, they can only survive by way of perpetuation. Individuals who enter the gaming community bring with them instilled ideologies, bolstering the hierarchy. Socialization for young male gamers commonly takes place in a space theorist Michael Kimmel terms guyland—a time in a boy’s life when their interactions with the world are altered. Video games, while being available to people of all ages, take on a degree of importance to boys in their adolescent years. This moment in their life is heavily malleable, therefore exposition to new concepts can impact the mind. Gaming experiences are extremely imperative, as whatever these boys witness can influence their opinions and behaviors. This notion is furthered by the pressures inherently found within adolescent years. Guyland has a lasting impact, forever changing how boys interact with other boys, and, additionally, the entire world. They learn to be less emotionally available, believing they must be strong, thus amplifying the idealizing of masculinity.8 With the struggles faced in their daily life, guyland extends into gaming spaces, making a side activity another opportunity to socialize boys into othering ideologies.
Socialization of adolescent boys lends to the creation of a toxic culture in the gaming community.9 Despite video games being the fundamental aspect of the community that brings gamers together, they, in actuality, can be the institutions that affirm certain mythologies. Rhetoric and agendas, like those involving violence, misogyny, homophobia, and racism, find their way into the narratives within gameplay. Whether it be through archetypes, phrases, or courses of actions, gamers constantly find themselves participating in play with hateful subtexts. Such instances not only strengthen the socialization gamers already face as they grow up, but they additionally further the discourse and allow individuals to carry out their othering ideologies through a platform that they respect. Essentially, if video games hold onto such mythologies, just like the players, when does the cycle end? The gaming community becomes trapped in an echo chamber, where the outlet that it reveres, institutionalizes and reaffirms othering ideologies.
The institution video games enforce is enhanced by a basic fundamental of the gaming experience—the concept of identity. The onset of the gaming industry in the twentieth century brought along an experimental process. Atypical to the average, day-to-day life, video games offer an opportunity to take on an alternate persona, pushing the boundaries related to the self. This virtual embodiment produced an inviting aura for the rising industry, presenting a revolutionary opportunity to those interested in partaking in the gaming world. But with such a monumental experiment came a detrimental outcome. The phenomenon became a catalyst for anxieties; the introduction of certain idealized characters created an aspirational element of the experience. Typically, humans can not truly live up to the displays of heroism in video games, forcing feelings of inadequacy within an individual. What comes about from this disconnect is an upholding of institutionalized ideals, essentially making video game characters symbols of expectations and norms.
The Toxic Institution of Video Games
Grand Theft Auto
The Grand Theft Auto franchise has made its way to, virtually, all popular culture spaces; we are all too familiar with this domineering display of traditionally masculine spectacle. First releasing its original title game, Grand Theft Auto, in 1997, the series has managed to hold onto its popularity to this very day, with fifteen other installments and another expected to be released within the next few years. There is a reason for its popularity, and it comes about from the inherent problems in gaming and in culture at large. Working off the back of a toxic gaming culture, the most obvious danger that comes out of the franchise is the sensationalization of violence. The ultimate goal of the game is to progress through a story that is mobilized by committing violent acts, all while maintaining an element of coolness and attractiveness. Essentially, the game is telling its audience that if you blow up a car, you can become rich and obtain all of the women you could want. This inherently problematic culture identified in the franchise is not only limited to these themes of glorified violence, though, but is furthered through the discriminatory implementation of representation.
The police in Grand Theft Auto function as a force to suppress the player when violent atrocities are committed. In GTA: San Andreas, the fifth installment of the series, policemen often say lines that allude to homosexuality. For example: “When I kick your ass, I’m gonna fuck it.” “First I’m gonna beat you up, then I’m gonna beat you off!” “Drop your pants, honey.” “Do you wanna bump up? Come on: Show me what you’re hiding down there!”10The inclusion of such language connects the police, who as an enemy of the player are meant to be killed, to homosexuality. Furthermore, women in this world are nothing more than sexual objects. Encounters with female characters are mostly limited to strip clubs and prostitution. In GTA 5, the most recent installment, players can solicit prostitutes and strippers. The game’s misogyny is not only limited to objectification, though. Furthermore, because the game involves so much freedom, players can choose to murder these women, as they can murder the policemen.
While toxic cultural and institutional ideologies are found in the Grand Theft Auto franchise, the problem is further expanded by choices real players make in the game. Upon coming across gay couples walking the streets in GTA: San Andreas, individuals took to the internet to express this discovery. One user writes, “If I see them, I immediately set fire to them. If I don’t have a flamethrower, I stop whatever I’m doing and spawn one.” Others write: “I murda dat dude that works in the athletic store . . . wit a 9mm and shoot em in da head. Nobody calls me puddin.” and “Lol, they piss me off [too]. But since I want to [buy] clothes, I pick out the clothes then shoot em’ dead.”11 What these games offer players is a chance to act on their othering ideologies without facing consequences in the real world. Although these virtual characters may not be real, the players intentions are entirely real. Having this outlet does not limit ideologies to the gaming world, it perpetuates their existence outside of virtual spaces.
Unlike the Grand Theft Auto franchise, Lollipop Chainsaw, released in 2012, never found its way to mainstream society. Despite this, it still stands out as a paradigm of toxic gaming experience. Gamers play as Juliet Starling, a beautiful, young, white girl fighting her way through zombie wastelands. Important to note is the fact that Starling is completely sexualized, wearing a tight and exposing cheerleading uniform. Rather than allowing her to traverse the game as, simply, a strong female character, her femininity is continuously emphasized to players through her physique. Furthermore, the emphasis is advanced through Starling’s interactions and experiences in the virtual world. Instances with friends and foes are imbued with arousal and sexism, involving expressions of sexual desires associated with Starling or discriminating against her womanhood. In a boss fight with an enemy named Zed, words are conjured and used to injure Starling. Some of those conjured words are: “vanilla slut,” “cocksucker,” and “fuckin’ bitch”. At another moment, Zed says, “I got a hard-on for dead cheerleaders.”12 Another layer to the game lies with Starling’s boyfriend, Nick. Players witness Nick get bitten by a zombie at the beginning of the game. To save him, Starling decapitates his head and resurrects it. For the rest of the game, Nick is attached to a belt around Starling’s waist. Players have criticized the game, saying that rather than Starling being objectified, Nick is objectified.13 While he does end up as an accessory, in a way, this notion can be aligned with the meninist movement. Making men out to be the true victims in society perpetuates a narrative that makes women appear to be deranged. Although Nick found himself subordinate to other men in that he could not perform masculine acts of violence against zombies alongside his girlfriend, Starling is the one who must endure the majority of discrimination throughout the game. The game is mobilized around Starling’s run-ins with misogyny. Ultimately, the game appears to never take itself seriously, but its effects are nothing short of serious. What it has become is another addition to the discourse, hyper-sexualizing a female and creating opportunities for gamers to absorb othering ideologies.
With the revolution of multiplayer gameplay, the institution of video games finally gave the community an opportunity to take ideologies, like those found in Grand Theft Auto and Lollipop Chainsaw, outside of the single-player experience; now players could finally perpetuate the oppressive system directly with other gamers. The assumed reaction would be that the protection single-player games gave players from real-world consequences would be removed. What actually occurred was the creation of a new safe space for discrimination. Because the gaming community is outside from the mainstream, what goes on between gamers is kept unknown from the masses, and since the community is built on othering ideologies, the echo chamber has flourished. A gamers small and personal world expanded through encounters with strangers from across the globe. This expansion not only affected individual perspectives, but, additionally, it further solidified the discriminatory mindset. Now, players began to witness that a vast majority of the people they met thought exactly like them. What this has produced is a gaming community that only works for white, cisgendered, heterosexual gamers. All those in opposition have no way of beating the system since their community has ousted them and many video games have othered them.
Hierarchies of Identity
Harassment of Female Gamers
Starting in 2018, a Youtuber by the name of Spawntaneous has produced a series called OMG A GIRL Series. Spawntaneous compiles encounters with male gamers on a multiplayer game named Rainbow Six Siege. Audiences view the sexualization and misogyny she must endure when the gamers heard in the video discover that she is female. Spawntaneous begins each video with a preface, stating how the series has been made to prove that such encounters are common in the gaming community as people seldom believe her. In the first episode, titled “What Girl Gamers REALLY Have to Deal With,” a young gamer says, “You shouldn’t be playing this. This game is a boy game.” Throughout the video, another gamer harasses her, continuously asking for her snapchat, despite her saying no. He later says, “You know what, you don’t have to give me the snapchat, you can give me the suck.” Soon after, another gamer says, “You fat fucking bitch. Go back in the kitchen and make a me a fucking tuna roll.” Spawntaneous’s intention for the series comes across perfectly in an encounter she has with another female gamer. The female gamer says, “You know what’s kinda sad? I think you’re the first female I’ve met in this game besides me. Most won’t talk because there’s a lot of harassment that goes on in this community.”14 Women are harassed so often that they cannot indulge themselves fully in video games. An essential part of online gaming is the ability to communicate with your teammates, but the harassment causes female gamers to limit themselves from doing this.
Harassment of Queer Gamers
An online article written by user BFoundAPen focuses on the rampant homophobia found within the gaming community. Encapsulating the piece is its subtitle, “One of the communities I belong to hates me.” They write that they are a gay and transgendered person who runs a gaming Instagram where they “share screenshots of [their] gaming experiences, but [they] don’t reveal that [they’re] transgender.” Additionally, they posted a pro-LGBTQA+ post on the Instagram account and received an immense amount of backlash from followers. They then go on to talk about a gay gaming streamer, Minnesota Mocha. Minnesota Mocha’s audience is aware that she is lesbian, and many will often defend her when outsiders make homophobic comments, but a paradox exists, notes BFoundAPen:
These same people will turn around and use the word ‘faggot’ carelessly. Homophobia is huge in this community. It’s everywhere. Every time someone gets killed in Call of Duty and they get mad, 6 times out of 10 they’re going to use a homophobic slur. This makes LGBTQ members cringe. It makes us feel unwelcome, as if we’re still on the outside looking in. It makes us shy away from big gaming community events. It also forces us to make our own communities inside the community.15
Just like female gamers, queer gamers are forced to limit their experiences to avoid harassment from their own community.
Harassment of Gamers of Color
Gamers of racial minorities are forced to bear discrimination similar to queer and female gamers. A video made by Emmanuel Ocbazghi for Business Insider highlights the relationship people of color have with video games. Like most individuals, people often turn to video games as a way to escape the tribulations they face in their daily life. “To get away from some of the bullying at school, I turned to video games. So, imagine how 12-year-old me felt when I logged onto Xbox Live for the first time and was almost immediately called the n-word.” The reality of video games is that it is not an escape for people like Ocbazghi. Kishonna Gray, director of the Equity in Gaming lab at Arizona State University, also included in the video, says, “Gaming is not made for women, people of color, right? It’s really not made for marginalized bodies.” 16 Even a professional gamer, Terrence Miller, endures racism at gaming tournaments. While the inherent racism in the gaming community is obvious, it has become quite normalized. Gamers of color have shrugged off the issue, as seen in the quantitative data taken from filed reports on racism Microsoft referenced when stating that Xbox gaming is safe for racial minorities. This is yet another example of the limitations placed unto gamers who are not white, cisgendered, heterosexual, and male.
The gaming community is not for everyone. While the subculture begins with a basic replication of an othering dominant culture, the mutations that replication undergoes erases many gamers from ever partaking in the idealized gaming experience. Subordinated gamers, when entering the community, soon realize that there is no place for them. Just like the dominant culture, marginalized bodies are forgotten and misplaced, but if there is no place for them in a subcultural context, then where can these bodies find belonging? This question lies in the hierarchical framework of the systems that span across the globe. Hegemony is ever evolving, and so long as it exists, it will continue to replicate and mutate itself in other subcultural communities, not just the gaming community.
- McBurgerHam, “Most Video Gamers Are Losers,” Reddit, June 3, 2019.
- Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks, TRANSLATED BY Joseph Buttigieg (Columbia Univ. Press, 2011).
- Lisa Wade and Myra Marx Ferree, Gender (W. W. Norton, 2019.
- Wade and Ferree, Gender, 11.
- Wade and Feree, Gender, 129.
- Robert William Connell, Masculinities, (Polity, 2005), 183.
- Connell, Masculinities, 77.
- Michael Kimmel, “Guyland: Gendering the Transition to Adulthood,” Exploring Masculinities: Identity, Inequality, Continuity and Change, edited by C.J. Pascoe and Tristan Bridges, (Oxford University Press, 2016).
- Jia Tolentino, “The Rage of the Incels,” The New Yorker, May 15, 2018.
- GTA: San Andreas, developed by Rockstar North (Rockstar Games, 2004).
- “Gay Dudes In San Andreas? – Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas,” Neoseeker, 2006.
- “Zed,” Lollipop Chainsaw Wiki.
- Jim Sterling, “Objectification and Lollipop Chainsaw,” Destructoid, June 18 2012.
- Spawntaneous, “What Girl Gamers REALLY Have to Deal With,” OMG A GIRL, YouTube, April 18, 2018.
- BFoundAPen, ““Homophobia in the Gaming Community,” Medium, September 3 2018.
- Insider, “Why Are There Still So Many Racist Trolls In Online Gaming?,” YouTube, May 13, 2018.